Cartes postales du bagne

Site visit #7. Saint Laurent du Maroni Pt2

Part 2. The musée du bagne

21 June 2018

The museum at the Camp de la Transportation in Saint Laurent du Maroni is housed in a small yellow building on the edge of the Camp. Divided into three distinct parts, the building once housed multiple operations – the salle anthropométrique where bagnards were photographed, fingerprinted and had their skulls measured plus other distinguishing features noted; the main kitchen and the camp’s chapel.

Where the guided tours of the camp, which provide exclusive access to the Quartier de la réclusion, are aimed at giving visitors insight into the organisation, life and especially suffering of the bagnards undergoing extra punishment in the prison within the prison, the museum does something else quite interesting in its mapping of its exhibition onto the historic spaces of the building.

For example, the museum does not reconstruct the original operations as is common in prison museums. However, the salle anthropométrique provides a series of exhibits, displays and text which focus on the arrival and processing of the bagnards including a walk of mug shots and display cases featuring a colour meter and skull-measuring device. In the corner of the room there are full length display cases featuring uniform belonging to the director and a guard. These seem to frame or reaffirm the surveillance implemented by the anthropometric documentation of the bagnards.

However, most striking in the display is the large photograph of bagnards still dressed in metropolitan clothing heading with kit bags down a road in France on their way to being transported. At the centre of the photo, which takes up the entire space of the display wall and is the first thing you encounter on entering the museum, a young, smartly dressed black man has turned to meet the gaze of the photographer. He seems to challenge this gaze and moreover the idea that this is a spectacle for public consumption. He doesn’t so much force one to look away but he does seem to be asking that we think about why exactly we are looking. It is only after meeting his gaze that we then encounter the display of mug shots presented on the reverse side of the display wall. This set up seems to demand a different engagement than the often ad-hoc poorly explained mug shots found in other prison museums.

The kitchen constitutes the main part of the museum. The original fire place is still visible but the story of the bagne is told via 4 display tables each with a single object:

1. Bell

2. Plan

3. Guillotine Cigar Cutter

4. Coconuts engraved by convicts

Cloth banners hang from the ceiling featuring photographic prints of bagnards and the heavily tattooed libérés discovered by photographer Dominique Darbois on her visit to French Guiana in the late 1950s in search of the Tumuc Humac. The room feels spacious and uncluttered yet there is a remarkable amount of information offered by the displays.

The Chapel

Where the main area of the museum focuses on key themes including ‘Evasion’ and ‘Surveiller et Punir’, the chapel takes as its theme questions of charity, humanity and salvation embodied in particular by the story of the closure of the bagne and the work of the Armée du Salut (namely Charles Péan) alongside the reports of Albert Londres that drew widespread public attention to the horrors of the penal colony during the 1920s. The chapel also addresses the problem of the abject poverty which was the general experience of released convicts forces to stay in French Guiana under the system of doublage.

The final panel, which in a sense concluded the museum exhibition, describes the repatriation of former bagnards once the bagne closed. A final convoy of 132 bagnards were repatriates in 1953. Testimony from the last surviving bagnard, Ali Belhouts, given as part of an interview in 2005, two years before his death, provides a moving account of the indelible mark left by the bagne.

Belhouts was repatriated to Algeria in 1952

“Tous les soirs, je rêve de Cayenne, tous les soirs, je suis à Cayenne, quand j’y pense, j’ai le vertige, j’y ai passé ma vie.”

It is the deliberate ambiguity, the affective experience of remembering evoked in this final statement that offers, I think, an appropriate conclusion to the museum narrative. An absence of closure which is somehow also a form of closure.

Site visit #5. 54 rue Madame Payé

Cayenne, 13 June 2018

View from upstairs of 54 rue Madame Payé

54 rue Madame Payé in the centre of Cayenne, is an annex to the Musée des Cultures Guyanaises at No 78. No 54 has been restored using traditional Creole building techniques and local materials. What is most significant is that the last owner of the original house was Herménégilde Tell. Tell’s personal biography is closely woven into the story of the Penal Administration and its closure but he is also a key figure in the wider political history of French Guiana. Although most, if not all, traces of the bagne have long vanished from Cayenne which only continues to function as metonym for the penal colony in Metropolitan France, the bagne functions as a shadowy presence felt as much through its absence as tangible heritage and also as a thread running through personal and local histories such as that of Herménégilde Tell.


Born in 1868, Herménégilde Philippe Hippolyte Athénodore Tell was the son of a former slave (his father was just ten years old when slavery was abolished in 1848 and already working on a plantation in Cayenne) and went on to become the Director of the A.P. at Saint Laurent du Maroni. Tell’s position as Director of the A.P. lies at the nexus of the complex racial pathologies of France’s colonial project. On the one hand, Tell represents the opportunities for the local population presented by the arrival of the penal colony which began operation in French Guiana a few years after the abolition of slavery. His father was also employed by the A.P. as a tonnelier [cooper]. Tell began work as a guard at the age of 17 and rose through the ranks to the level of Director in 1919. His career trajectory thus runs counter to a more widely known narrative which focuses on the employment of military personnel from France and its other colonies to work on a temporary basis in the bagne before being assigned elsewhere. Yet, recent discourse around the bagne and its legacy point to Tell’s unusual position as someone who successfully rose through the ranks as one of the keys to understanding the decarceration process. Ironically, it was the image of the son of a slave overseeing the punishment of a predominantly white convict population, as reported by Albert Londres, that is sometimes proposed as precipitating the public outcry about the bagne and the call, from mainland France, for its closure. Where the public either ignored or denied its existence previously or harboured a fascination for its myths, exoticism and cruelty, Londres’ reports brought a previously blurred fantasy into sharp relief not least with his critique of Tell’s inept management of the A.P. This critique was posited alongside the devastating accounts of the liberated convicts forced to do ‘doublage’ in the colony – the image of abject white poverty juxtaposed against the upward social and political mobility of the Creole population.

An awareness of Tell’s position in all this is useful in understanding the racist underpinnings that contributed towards the closure of the bagne. It also acts as a reminder of the complexity of decarceration and the complex, local and global stakes of such processes. At the same time, this discourse, more prominent in French Guiana perhaps, should also be subject to scrutiny.

When I visited 54 rue Madame Payé last year, the story of Tell’s rise and fall in the A.P. featured on panels in the downstairs of the house, cited Albert Londres’ Au Bagne suggesting that the initial reporting emphasized Tell’s racial identity in a brief clause that was later removed in subsequent republications.


Exhibition on Herménégilde Tell, 54 rue Madame Payé, July 2017

‘Saint Laurent-du-Maroni…c’est la capitale du crime. Le roi règne et gouverne, c’est M. Herménégilde Tell, un nègre…’ (Albert Londres, Au Bagne, 1923)

Detail from 23 August 1923 edition of Le Petit Parisien. Collection: Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer.

A few months later I was looking for the quotation in the book-version of Londres’ reports and found that the clause was still there. It hadn’t been edited out later or perhaps has been returned in later editions. Consequently, I went back to the original reports I had documented on a visit to ANOM in 2015. As it turned out, the clause was missing from the original reports in Le Petit Parisien and had been reinserted in later editions, no doubt based on Londres’ original manuscript.

Albert Londres’ account of Saint Laurent du Maroni in Le Petit Parisien. Collection Archives Nationales d’Outre Mer

‘Saint Laurent-du-Maroni est le royaume de l’administration pénitentiaire. C’est une royauté absolu, sans Sénat, sans Chambre, sans même un petit bout de conseil municipal. C’est la capitale du crime.
         Le roi règne et gouverne, c’est M. Herménégilde Tell.’

What this suggests is that despite Londres’ explicit slur, this was actually censored or edited out by the editors at Le Petit Parisien in its initial publication. Why? The museum panel that referred inaccurately to a later censorship suggested that:

‘Ce dernier terme « un nègre », n’apparaît plus dans les éditions suivantes, probablement pour sa connotation raciste ou trop évocatrice de l’esclavage… Mais c’est effectivement le fils d’un ancien esclave qui est devenu directeur de l’administration pénitentiaire, après en avoir gravi les échelons.’

Cutting the reference did not perhaps remove all implication of Tell’s race and background but instead allowed these to operate on public imagination without being more forcibly and crudely articulated. Moreover, it is interesting to note that this minor error has now disappeared from the museum’s presentation of tell. This is not so much a case of the error having been corrected at 54 rue Madame Payé but the panels have been changed since my last visit. In general the text on the panels has been reduced, summarized perhaps to make room for the new exhibition on postcards upstairs. The relationship between Londres and Tell is still highlighted complete with moody photo of Londres. Here, however, Londres’ exact reference to Tell that was previously cited has been omitted. Instead he is simply described as having ‘skewered’ [épinglé] Tell.

A more recent version of the encounter between Tell and Londres on display at 54 rue Madame Payé, June 2018.

‘La fin de ce parcours est ternie, dans le sillage de l’enquête d’Albert LONDRES au bagne. Sa personne [Tell] et sa fonction sont directement épinglées par le reporter. Le Gouverneur CHANEL, arrive en Guyane le 17 novembre 1923, met en doute son intégrité et demande sans relâche sa mise à la retraite, estimant que « son maintien à la tête de l’AP serait un obstacle certain à l’œuvre de réforme entreprise ».’

Both the earlier panels and the new version describe Tell as receiving commendation for his work but having come under varying degrees of criticism for his personality throughout his career in the A.P. While I’ve heard people describe the devastating effect Londres’ personal campaign against Tell had on him (he died 6 years later in 1931), there is a need to be wary of identifying him as scapegoat for the failure of the bagne. No doubt his high profile in French Guiana’s political circles working with Jean Galmot (taking over as Secretary General of the Parti de la Liberté following Galmot’s untimely demise) as well as the marriage of his daughter, Eugénie to Félix Eboué in 1922 serve to draw further attention to his chequered career as part of the bagne administration.